Archive for October, 2018

The Sunday Intertitle: Your sins shall find you out

Posted in FILM, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 28, 2018 by dcairns

The reassuring smile of Boris Karloff

Weird coincidences. We have a great view of the moon from our front window, in the early evening. During the full moon, we had a double bill of John Carpenter’s THE FOG, which turned out to take place during the full moon, a fact we had forgotten (fun, and I hadn’t seen it since the days of my school film society) and PRINCE OF DARKNESS (not so hot), whose very first shot is the full moon.

Last night, looking for a spooky silent film to cull an intertitle from, I plumped for THE BELLS (James Young, 1926). Which turned out to have a much more disturbing contemporary relevance. I sort of thought I knew the story from having watched Bill Morrison’s THE MESMERIST, which is based around decayed fragments of the movie, but I’d forgotten, if I ever knew, that the plot (by fantasy writers Erckman-Chatrian, a sort of second-string ETA Hoffmann), centres on the murder of a Jewish traveler. The film’s attempt to find sympathy for the guilt-tormented murderer played by Lionel Barrymore fell on somewhat deaf ears, since I was preoccupied with thoughts of the anti-semitic terror attack in Pittsburgh.

The film attempts to enlist compassion for Barrymore from the start, even though he’s attempting to ingratiate his way into political office by giving away free beer. When this leads his finances to a desperate state, he murders the traveler on New Year’s Eve in order to steal the money belt full of gold the guy rather injudiciously shows off. Now, Barrymore has been depicted explicitly as NOT anti-semitic, as he welcomes the traveler at his inn when others are more hostile. But that sort of kindness only goes so far. With my sensibilities perhaps heightened by the day’s tragic and horrible news story, I couldn’t escape feeling that while Barrymore doesn’t hate the Polish Jew for who he is, he is able to see his way to murdering the guy because he’s Not One Of Us.

So I’m afraid I couldn’t really get behind his quest for redemption.

But my, it’s a beautifully made movie. And features an early exploitation of Boris Karloff’s unique physiognomy. And Barrymore is good. There’s also an early iteration of that trick with filters made famous by Mamoulian in DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (and also used in SHIT! THE OCTOPUS!), where Lady Macbeth-style phantom bloodstains appear and disappear on Lionel’s hands, all in one shot (revealed and concealed by a red filter. If you ever carried a Coke can into a dark room and watched half the design disappear when the red light made the red and white parts of the can look the same, you’ve seen this rather uncanny effect in action).

 

But a creeping discomfort about the film’s attitudes remains, and the intercession of a plaster Virgin doesn’t alleviate it.

Own Ghoul

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 27, 2018 by dcairns

Starring Hengist Pod, the Rumpo Kid, Jill Masterson, Louis D’Ascoygne, Dr. Crippen, Emeric Belasco (pictured) and Budgie.

More Pat Jackson (if you’re nasty). I was impressed by the camera direction in WHAT A CARVE UP!, which is not, otherwise, a distinguished work. Let me explain.

The movie is kind of a remake of THE GHOUL, supposedly, later re-remade by Amicus, I believe. But the three films have little in common. In this one, cowardly proofreader Kenneth Connor is summoned to an Old Dark House in Yorkshire for the reading of an eccentric uncle’s will. Being a coward, he brings his flatmate Sid James along. Some brief intrigue is managed by bringing two Carry On film regulars into a spookshow populated by horror icons Michael Gough, Michael Gwynn (REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN, very funny here) and an unblinking Donald Pleasence. His character name is Everett Sloane, but this is not an in-joke, so far as I can see, just laziness. Murders ensue.

There are very few good jokes, but here is one. It’s so gloriously stupid it achieves a kind of glory.

The script is a pile of old tosh by Ray Cooney & Tony Hilton, who also wrote one or two serious thrillers like THE HAND around this time. Cooney, of course, is an unbelievably persistent and diabolical scourge on the British cinema: everything he touches would turn to shit except it already IS shit. He has some kind of reverse Midas touch, though, which allows him to turn shit into much, much worse shit. This is a unique gift to have, though not in any way a useful one… except in Britain, it seems, where it can get you a 58-year-and-counting screenwriting career. You also get to direct, because hey, how much worse can shit get? See NOT NOW, DARLING and find out.

I do honestly like the moose joke though. It’s the only good Cooney joke I know.

The early scenes showing Connor and James’ home life have a very Hancock feel, and I wonder if the movie were actually intended for the great Tony H.

Cooney & Hilton are, God knows, no Galton & Simpson (RIP), so I can easily imagine Hancock turning his nose up at this sub-CAT AND THE CANARY tosh. Sid James, of course, would say yes to anything, which is why we have BLESS THIS HOUSE: THE MOTION PICTURE. His eternal, dogged professionalism and scrotumnal fizzog carry us through the dross.

 

Connor is a perfectly OK supporting player but becomes irritating over the long haul of a leading role, and his vulnerability is undercut by the script, which makes everyone an asshole. The best perfs come from the straight actors — Pleasence plays it eerily still, Gough lopes crookedly, and Michael Gwynn is a delight, all pixilated stare and rigid arms, a man unable to awaken from a dream. Really eccentric, something you haven’t seen before in the world of acting. It is worth sitting through this muck for him, Esma Cannon, and the previously mentioned.

Then there’s Jackson’s choice of angles, which show an imagination and cheek not so evident in his other works. I get the feeling he’s taking the mickey, trying to liven up tired material, and he probably thought this kind of showmanship beneath him, normally. A shame, because if he’d gone all out on his other dramas, he might have built up a rep as a minor Hitchcockian.

Sothern Fried

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 26, 2018 by dcairns

Alert! Time for me to explore the works of Pat Jackson (if you’re nasty).

Jackson was a graduate of the GPO Film Unit, the UK postal service’s own film production arm, which also employed the great Cavalcanti, the obnoxious-sounding Harry Watt, and made the famous NIGHT MAIL. He then had a distinguished sojourn at the Crown Film Unit making war docs alongside Humphrey Jennings. He made his feature debut at MGM (as “Patrick Jackson” because “Pat” isn’t distinguished enough for a classy joint like MGM) with SHADOW ON THE WALL, a disjointed psychodrama starring Congo Maisie, Monte Beragon, Fanny Trellis Skeffington at aged 2, Gavin Elster (yay!), Sheriff Al Chambers and Nancy frickin’ Reagan.

Ann Sothern for once plays a villain, managing to incorporate some sympathy into a twisted character, and some subtlety into an intense, melodramatic story. But the film seems unable to decide WHO it’s about. We start on a wide of a lovely house, which is revealed to be an elaborate dollhouse, the first of many in the story. Andre Previn’s music veers from playfully childlike to sinister, then manages to dissonantly suggest both tones at once. We meet little Gigi Perreau, and then her dad, Zachary Scott, and discover through his eyes that his young wife (Kristine Miller, very glam indeed) is cheating on him with Tom Helmore.

While we’re pondering whether one should marry Monte Beragon and cheat with Gavin Elster, or vice versa, murder rears its antiseptic Hollywood head: Helmore was engaged to Miller’s sister, Ann Sothern, and she shoots her scheming sibling dead shortly after Miller’s stunned Scott by striking him on the nose with a hand mirror. When he awakens, he’s been neatly fitted up for murder, and will spend most of rest of the movie on death row, waiting. What nobody realises is that his little daughter witnessed the murder, but is in a state of shock and can’t tell anyone.

We now divide our narrative mainly between Nancy Davis/Reagan, a therapist trying to cure little Gigi, and Sothern, who’s trying to kill her. Much of Sothern’s business is internal, though, as she agonizes about her fear of being caught, culminating in a hilarious hallucination at the hairdressers —

 

There are some other nicer directorial touches. Jackson uses simple wide shots effectively, isolating our child non-protagonist (Gigi has no active goal, so she’s basically a nut for Nancy to crack). There are two major child jeopardy situations, one in which Gigi and a playpal debate which of them is to drink a glass of chocolate milk which Sothern has poisoned. The script milks (sorry!) this a good bit, but Jackson doesn’t do much with it. Probably a mercy.

But then Sothern tries to drown the moppet in the hospital’s hydrotherapy room, and all stops are pulled out, heaped up and set fire to. Looong lurking shot in the corridor, waiting, waiting, while infanticide is attempted behind closed doors. Merciless. Let’s remember that Truffaut said that jeopardising the life of a child in a drama was virtually an abuse of cinematic power (he did it in SMALL CHANGE, but he had reasons and had thought about it). Bruce Robinson, writing IN DREAMS for Neil Jordan, had felt unable to threaten a child’s life, despite the fact that he was writing a thriller about a child killer. This posed a problem. “It took me three months to solve it. It took Neil Jordan three minutes to fuck it up.”

Jackson had no such compunctions, it seems: he’d be back threatening children in cop drama THE GENTLE TOUCH a few films later.

I suspect Jackson didn’t find MGM a comfortable home — at any rate, he was soon back in the UK and back to being Pat. More on him soon.